On May 25, two-thirds of Irish voters approved in a referendum repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which outlawed abortion on the Emerald Island. The Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) will vote by the end of the year on a proposed law legalizing abortion-on-demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in cases to protect the life of the mother or fetal defect up to 20 weeks.
In 1983, Irish voters voted overwhelmingly to add the pro-life amendment to the Irish constitution. The Eighth Amendment stated: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
Feminists and pro-abortion activists have been advocating repeal since, and have used media campaigns and the European courts to challenge the validity of the law. Subsequent amendments permitted Irish women to travel abroad for abortions and required doctors to inform women of abortion access available abroad. Activists exploited the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, who died after a spontaneous miscarriage, to promote relaxing abortion restrictions and they also note that between 3000 and 6000 Irish women traveled to the United Kingdom to obtain (legal) abortions.
In June 2017, Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach (prime minister). Varadkar, who is a practicing homosexual, promised to hold a referendum on liberalizing abortion in 2018 and during his official visit to Canada last year, was pressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to legalize abortion.
On March 17, the Irish legislature voted 115-32 with 10 abstentions to hold a referendum on “Repeal of the Eighth Amendment,” on May 25. Officially, every party in the legislature supported the referendum, although nearly half of the Fianna Fáil voted against it.
When the campaign started, six of the eight largest parties officially endorsed a yes vote to repeal, while the others, including Fianna Fáil were neutral. An official umbrella group called “Together for Yes” that included the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Irish Family Planning Association, the Union of Students in Ireland, and Inclusion Ireland (which represents individuals with intellectual disabilities), supported the repeal. The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions also supported a yes vote, as did most major newspapers.
The Pro Life Campaign and the Save the 8th, a joint campaign of the Life Institute and Youth Defence, led the opposition against repealing the pro-life amendment. They were joined by the left-wing group Cherish All the Children Equally, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Orange Order.
Major groups that took officially neutral positions included the Church of Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland, and two of the largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, although individual politicians took sides.
Most polls showed the pro-repeal vote with overwhelming support, but with nearly one-fifth of respondents undecided, pro-life advocates were hopeful they could pull out a victory. When the ballots were counted, it was not close. More than 1.4 million Irish men and women voted to repeal, while 723,000 voted to maintain the pro-life amendment. Fully two-thirds of voters supported scrapping the Eighth Amendment. Voter turnout was 64 per cent, a record for a constitutional referendum.
A majority in 39 of 40 constituencies supported repeal, with higher rates of support in Dublin and other cities. Only Donegal in northwestern Ireland voted to maintain the Eighth Amendment, with nearly 52 per cent opposing liberalizing abortion law.
Six in ten people aged 65 or older voted to retain the Eighth Amendment, but every other age group voted for repeal. Women were slightly more likely to vote repeal than men.
Once the results were announced, Health Minister Simon Harris said a new law would be introduced and passed by the end of the year. The government has talked about allowing abortion under all circumstances up to 12 weeks and in limited cases after that point, permitting medical staff to opt out of committing abortions, but still requiring state-funded Catholic hospitals to provide abortions.
The traditionally Irish country has been liberalizing social policy since the 1990s, legalizing contraception, divorce, and same-sex “marriage” in various referenda. The conventional wisdom for why the predominantly Catholic population (78.3 per cent) has endorsed these changes is not merely embracing modern values, but that the moral authority of the Church was undermined following revelations of sexual and emotional abuse by priests in a series of reports released from 2005-2009.
Damian Thompson wrote in The Spectatorthat the vote reflected the trend of secularization throughout the West, but argued that many voters were willing to accept the presumed compromise of permitting abortion but limiting its scope as the government indicated it would do.
Immediately after the Irish vote, members of the Canadian government were tweeting their support for the decision of Irish voters to overturn the pro-life amendment. Justin Trudeau tweeted: “What a moment for democracy and women’s rights. Tonight, I spoke with Taoiseach @campaignforLeo and his team and congratulated them on the Yes side’s referendum victory legalizing abortion in Ireland. #repealedthe8th.” Canada’s Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, tweeted a picture of her high-fiving Kevin Vickers, Canada’s ambassador to Ireland as they celebrated the results. Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, said his ancestors would be proud of the vote.
Other international leaders congratulating Ireland and Varadkar included Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström.
Ross Douthat of the New York Timesnoted an irony implicit in the congratulatory notes from feminists and others on the political Left: Ireland is likely to impose limits far more stringent than their countries have permitted. Pro-life groups, including Save the 8th, have warned that whatever limits are in place in the initial law will be hacked away by future abortion activism.